Before antibiotics were available, diphtheria was a common illness in young children. Today, the disease is not only treatable but is also preventable with a vaccine.

The diphtheria vaccine is usually combined with vaccines for tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis). The three-in-one vaccine is known as the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine. The latest version of this vaccine is known as the DTaP vaccine for children and the Tdap vaccine for adolescents and adults.

The diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine is one of the childhood immunizations that doctors in the United States recommend during infancy. Vaccination consists of a series of five shots, typically administered in the arm or thigh, given to children at these ages:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 12 to 18 months
  • 4 to 6 years

The diphtheria vaccine is effective at preventing diphtheria. But there may be some side effects. Some children may experience a mild fever, fussiness, drowsiness or tenderness at the injection site after a DTaPshot. Ask your doctor what you can do for your child to minimize or relieve these effects.

Rarely, the DTaP vaccine causes serious complications in a child, such as an allergic reaction (hives or a rash develops within minutes of the injection), seizures or shock — complications that are treatable.

Some children — such as those with epilepsy or another nervous system condition — may not be candidates for the DTaP vaccine.

Booster shots

After the initial series of immunizations in childhood, you need booster shots of the diphtheria vaccine to help you maintain immunity. That's because immunity to diphtheria fades with time.

Children need their first booster shot at around age 12. The next booster shot is recommended 10 years later, then repeated at 10-year intervals. Booster shots are particularly important if you travel to an area where diphtheria is common.

The diphtheria booster is combined with the tetanus booster in one vaccine — the tetanus-diphtheria (Td) vaccine. This combination vaccine is given by injection, usually into the arm or thigh.

Doctors recommend that anyone older than age 7 who has never been vaccinated against diphtheria receive three doses of the Td vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also recommends a one-time combined tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria and acellular pertussis (Tdap) vaccine for adolescents around the age of 12 and for anyone older than that who hasn't received the vaccine in the past — or doesn't know if they've received the vaccine. It's also recommended for anyone who's pregnant, regardless of previous vaccination status.

Mar. 27, 2014